Exciting race to Rio for walkers

Nine Indian athletes having made the qualifying standard in the 20km event for this August’s Rio Olympics but only three entries are allowed per country. The race for an Olympic berth has just gotten hotter for walkers in the country.

A file photo of K.T. Irfan in action at the second National Open race walking championship in Kochi.   -  H. Vibhu

Kochi: Qualifying for the Olympics…that’s the big goal for many athletes in India this year. But surprisingly, there is a problem of plenty in race walking, with nine athletes having made the qualifying standard in the 20km event for this August’s Rio Olympics.

And with only three entries allowed, the race to Rio is bound to get very exciting over the next couple of months.

Reputations will not count

“Only the best will go to Rio, reputations will not count here…London was four years ago,” said C.K. Valson, the Secretary of the Athletics Federation of India.

Valson stressed on London because Kerala’s K.T. Irfan, who finished an impressive 10th with a national record in the 20km race walk, was one of India’s standout performers at the 2012 Olympics.

The 26-year-old Irfan, who is coming back from injuries and who finished fourth in the Race Walking National in Jaipur last month with a season-best 1:22.15s, is currently in the fourth spot in the race to Rio, behind National champion Gurmeet Singh, K. Ganapathi and Sandeep Kumar.

And with competition so tight, Irfan’s national record is bound to be tested in the Asian 20km race walking championship which will be held at Nomi in Japan on March 20.

India will field seven men at the Asian meet – Gurmeet, Ganapathi, Sandeep, Irfan, Manish Singh Rawat, Devender Singh and Neeraj — and a lone woman in Sapna Punia.

Khushbir injured

But missing from the top event will be national record holder Khushbir Kaur, who won a silver, the first by an Indian woman race walker, at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

“Khushbir sprained her ankle at Jaipur (during the National), it’s not a worrisome injury but we did not want to aggravate things and miss an opportunity in Rio,” said Valson.

No worry over Jaipur timings

There were concerns in some quarters on whether the Jaipur National was an approved qualifying competition for Rio. But Valson confirmed that the timings and the event had fulfilled the world body IAAF’s conditions.

“We had two members from the IAAF panel, one from Scotland and one from Hong Kong and the course was measured by an IAAF Class I measurer,” explained Valson. “So, the timings are recognised for Olympic qualification purposes.”

Four race walkers made the entry standard for Rio from the Jaipur National.

After the Asian championship in Nomi, the athletes will also be in action at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Rome in May.